Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Part 3: Noël van Mierlo’s Balancing Act – with carexTours

February 5, 2017

The modernist tea house in van Mierlo’s Japanese water garden, a magical bridge of steel plates, and massive wooden bollards forming an entrance passage (back left).

As a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour in August 2016, I joined a simpatico group of international garden travelers with a special interest in the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely founded … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. The carexTours itinerary gave us an intense overview of Piet Oudolf’s work and Dutch Wave design, as well as glimpses into work of several other major garden designers–including two gardens by one designer very atypical of the Dutch Wave, Noël van Mierlo, the subject of this post. Seeing the two van Mierlo gardens was a revelatory experience, making us think about what a garden is, and giving greater insight into the distinguishing characteristics of the Dutch Wave.

For more information on future tours, just click on carexTours.

 

I didn’t know what to expect the morning we started out on our visit to two Noël van Mierlo gardens. My Dutch-American friend Carrie Preston, who has lived in The Netherlands for many years, had told me a bit about him, that his gardens has received several national awards … but coming after a visit to Piet Oudolf’s very different Vlinderhof only the day before, I certainly didn’t expect the architectural, highly choreographed gardens we were to see. Van Mierlo’s stunning gardens are a dramatic break from the Dutch Wave style that has been flourishing in The Netherlands for the past two decades.

Why are van Mierlo’s gardens so different? Dutch Wave gardens emulate the look of nature … rather, they take their inspiration from the look of nature and intensify that look. They are about display of perennials and grasses, and an intensely emotional response to those plants, about the biological entities, the plants themselves, in all their glorious variety and multivariate forms through all seasons. They seem to work on some primal emotional level. Trees, structure, stone, water are not necessary, or even representative of the Dutch Wave–the focus is on the herbaceous perennials and grasses–though they may be present, and important parts of, individual gardens.

Japanese Water Garden

Noël van Mierlo’s Japanese water garden, in marked contrast, is about structure, texture, line, shape, about complexity (a complexity made to look simple), not about an emotional response to plants. It is a cool, meditative garden, a garden for musing. (It is also very much a continuation of the house, a series of outdoor rooms well suited to private enjoyment or social occasions.)

The designer selected Ginkgos of substantial size and great character to give the garden an atmosphere of mystery and age.

The garden is quiet, contemplative, observant of small details, almost opposite to the delight, exhilaration, and high-pitch of feelings often evoked by Dutch Wave plantings. It subtly juxtaposes natural and manmade morphologies to create a unified experience.

Architectural Garden

Van Mierlo conceives the garden as a series of rooms and frequently refers to its floor, walls, ceiling. When I asked him for names of designers he admires, he mentioned Lake Flato and Tom Kundig–both architects–architects known for designing structures that sit easily in a natural, often wild, landscape, and for artfully crafted structures. You see architecture in the impressive use of the huge wooden bollards that form the entrance portal, in the refined lines of the modernist, yet sensuous, tea house, in the carefully selected and positioned rocks used to anchor the garden in the landscape, in the sensitive selection of trees with great character (trees too are part of the architecture of this garden) …

…in the thick steel plates that gracefully bridge the pond, appearing to be suspended just above the water’s surface (quite a structural engineering challenge), designed in collaboration with noted Dutch metal artist Xander Spronken

… and in attention to appropriateness of materials and to the smallest details, as in this carefully crafted transition from gravel to lawn.

Surface transitions are handled with great care and attention to detail.

All through the design and construction process, he strives to find and use the finest craftsmen available for garden pavements, finishes, lighting–and planting.

Because this garden is a dramatic departure from plant-centric Dutch Wave gardens, it was a powerful reminder to those of us on Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour that gardens take many, and vastly different, forms.

So did carexTours add the van Mierlo gardens as a “palate cleanser,” perhaps, served between courses of Dutch Wave gardens? I don’t think so. Carolyn wanted to make us think.

Strangely, although it is certainly an architectural garden, full of complicated structural challenges, a garden difficult and costly to create, requiring heavy equipment, expensive materials, and precision in construction …

… it is a garden about ecology, far more so than most Dutch Wave gardens are … a garden that, in fact, creates habitat.

The water’s edge creates a broad range of habitats for plants.

Opportunities for Novel Ecologies

Among its many other attributes, this is a garden for a connoisseur of plants and ecological design though, ironically, van Mierlo does not select the perennials in his gardens. That’s not really such a strange concept if you compare garden making to other art forms. Think of him as the director of a theatrical performance or a film. He is the artist, the director, as well as the curator of expertise, and he has a talent for working with others. As with all garden challenges–architectural, structural, construction, Van Mierlo knows and uses experts and highly skilled craftsmen. In this case, his expert is an extremely talented plantsman, Ruurd van Donkelaar. (Van Mierlo does take a direct role in selection and placement of distinctive trees, the “walls” of the garden and the pillars holding up the sky, the ceiling of the garden.)

Carex greyii, an American native – one of the largest specimens I’ve seen was in the Japanese water garden.

Look at the care van Donkelaar used in designing this water’s edge habitat. The rocks, gravel and plants are composed to create a “natural” transition from the water to the land, with a finely graduated differentiation of novel habitats to cover the pond liner and create a natural-looking transition, over a distance of only about three feet, of plants selected for suitability to their positions in water or on the drier edges; note the attention to scale in the planting, with miniature plants growing even between the small pieces of gravel. The design is elegant, restrained, possibly more natural than natural (a “created natural”).

Only compare this to the crude transition below, one I recently photographed elsewhere …

… which, I think, makes the artfulness of the van Mierlo garden clear.

The plantings demonstrate deep knowledge of ecology-based planting as well as plant sociology (plants’ preferences for growing in large or small groups, solitary plants, and so on). Anyone familiar with the German habitat-influenced perennial movement will recognize such groupings as these, which consider both plant ecology and sociology:  “solitary plants along the water’s edge in moist gravel,” “bog and pond plants,” “plants for moist conditions in small groups,” “solitary grasses and ferns,” “backyard bulbs in small groups between groundcovers,” “solitary plants under trees,” and plants for use in various depths of water. (These are my rough translations of the Dutch labels on the planting plans.)

Some of the plants are so unusual (to me) that I misidentified them. What do you think the red-leafed plants in this photo are?

I thought I was seeing a new Heuchera with a ground cover of green Tiarella cordifolia. I was wrong. It’s a Saxifrage (Saxifraga cortusifolia ‘Rubrifolia’).  And look at this miniature bit of nature between stones and a steel bridge plate. Viola, moss, baby ferns, seedling Saxifrages …

… these plants aren’t just surviving, they are reproducing and creating habitat in a garden less than two years old.

The Garden Entrance

The entrance to the Japanese water garden is subtle and understated. We might call it an example of Wabi Sabi, appreciation for the beauty in the lowly and humble.

From the entry passage, used wooden bollards block the view into the garden, then gradually break apart into an abstracted series of verticals, giving glimpses in.

These solid, bulky forms (they are seven or eight feet tall) are given an elegance and visual interest by plantings of carex and low shrubs at ground level and red berried Euonymous europaea (Spindle tree) that catches the eye and carries it upward. A very Japanese characteristic–the display of subtle variations of color and texture across the worn surface of the wood, the play of light and shadow, is another Wabi Sabi touch.

From the other side, the Euonymous are even more colorful, and beautifully offset by a few low grasses.

Van Mierlo works to achieve a balance (he uses the word “unity”) between the many different elements of garden composition …

… the floor of the garden (paving, water, ground covers, pathways, bridges, rocks, turf), the walls and furniture of the garden (structures, plants, seating, sculpture, trees), and the garden’s roof (tree canopies and sky). This striving for unity of effect is visible, too, in his placement of such “added” elements as the client’s sculpture–for example, this mysterious piece, seen above and more closely below …

… the black figure has been positioned before the water, in an emotionally meaningful context of grasses and shrubs that suggest a figure in hiding, waiting, musing …

… and so too, with this grouping of small tree trunks sloping in the shade, van Mierlo captures the eye with a subtle effect achieved as part of many elements in balance. Walking the garden is a richly sensory experience. Note (below) how gracefully the garden moves from a naturalistic path to a more formal passageway, which is necessary to accommodate space limitations at the border of the residential property …

… bringing the garden visitor around to this lawn, and then the house and its outside entertainment areas.

 

 

Even on the utility, or entertainment, side of the garden, artful plantings and simple appointments continue the contemplative atmosphere.

This Rodgersia adds color and texture to a mixed border on the water’s edge.

 

A simple basin of water rests on a stone pedestal wrapped in closely trimmed yew.

The Japanese water garden is very much a journey. Movement from the entrance is choreographed by landscape and structural elements to carry the visitor into the garden, across the bridge of steel plates to the tea house, then around the far side of the pond on a simple path embellished by ecological plantings, around the back of the property, onto the lawn and entertainment precinct of the house …

… that journey can continue across the pond again, with resting places in the tea house, and around the lawn. It is a compact journey, but it offers compelling transitions in mood.

To see a video showing how the garden was built, click here.

The other garden we visited, the Stream garden, contains many of the same elements, and it too uses water and rock as principal elements of composition.

The Stream Garden

Noël van Mierlo introducing his just-planted Stream garden. Note the high dyke in the background.

The other van Mierlo garden we saw was newly constructed and very recently planted. The Stream garden is located in front of the owner’s house in the polders (low land rescued from the sea), and it is surrounded, at a distance, by high dykes. It appeared to be a difficult site for a garden, offering little of interest.

The owner’s home, with many of our tour group waiting to enter the garden.

Since such land is intrinsically lacking in interest, though it does has its own sense of place, van Mierlo’s client specifically requested a landscape that would bring him to another place …

A planting of Acaena, a plant of subtle and unusual beauty.

… one that reminded him of his many summers walking rocky streams in the mountains of Austria. When questioned about that, the client said, “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?” That was enough of a clue.

This is largely a linear garden built along a very natural-looking artificial stream, with wider areas encompassing the residence and associated buildings and a pond at one end, and a play area outside a terminus marked by great wooden bollards, at the far end. The trees used here are, like those in the Japanese water garden, selected for unique form and character.

Stone, which is not normally present in The Netherlands, is a prominent feature in both the Japanese water garden and the Stream garden, but more so here, and its artful use is an essential element in the success of this garden. It is used to …

… create sense of place in a site that is essentially a blank canvas. But the stone does more. It makes the gardens “belong” in the landscape by virtue of its sheer physicality. Stones are selected with great care for shape, for how well they work in groups, for color, texture, size. And the stone helps to unify all the elements of the garden floor–gravel, wood, plants, paths, water.

Stone adds an element of mystery too, a primal sense of presence, much as we experience in ancient sites such as Stonehenge, or at many lesser ancient sites.

They also suggest (as above) the natural geologic processes of nature (here an artful illusion), processes that work over millennia, and thus introduce a sense of the immense time scales of geologic processes (hints of Lord of the Rings here?). Strewn across the landscape, they suggest they might have had a glacial origin. It’s all sleight of hand, of course, but a very effective magic show. The rough, worn surface of the wooden walkway continues the color of the stone in an alternative material, an organic material, that again suggests the concept of Wabi Sabi.

The stonescaping, and the intentional irregularity of the wooden walkway, create a strong sense of place, which will “mature” as the rocks and wood age in place.

The log wall (above) will age to a color that approximates the grey of the stone and of the three vertical wooden bollards. This wall is essential; on the other side, is an active marina, operated by the owner of the garden.

A line of wooden bollards, a common sight along waterfronts in The Netherlands, demarks the far end of the garden, separating a children’s play area from the garden proper. Even here van Mierlo uses mounded sand, rock, and grass to suggest a feeling of seaside play.

One of our tour members couldn’t resist this swing.

Van Mierlo says his gardens are about making connections. Just as his design approach is one of collaboration, a bringing together of parts, making many creative talents work in unison for a single goal, so too he aims for all the parts of the garden–stones, trees, structures, paving, water, plants–to achieve a unity of effect and feeling. I think he certainly achieves that end. These are extraordinary gardens.

* Photographs 1, 2, 10, 27 and 28 of the Japanese water garden were provided by Noël van Mierlo.

 

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

David Feix February 5, 2017 at 11:50 am

Thanks for sharing this, and the video was superb also. I find so much to admire and analyze in this garden, and the level of engineering and architectural detailing played off the “thrown” naturalistic character of the plantings makes a memorable marriage. While I can appreciate the look of the Dutch Wave garden style, they don’t speak to me as something at all applicable to the California garden or climate. This garden does, and done so well…

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James Golden February 5, 2017 at 8:38 pm

David, thanks for the comment. I see what you mean. Noël van Mierlo lived for a while in Vancouver, I believe, and likes the West Coast, so I see the association. The garden looks so simple, but it took great effort, immense skill and talent, and lost of money to make it (to be frank).

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Mierlo, Van Noël February 14, 2017 at 6:13 am

Hi David,
True, I’ve spend time in Vancouver and I like some West Coast architects. The roughness of US nature is an inspiration.
Indeed it was a costly venture building the garden. But in my opinion not to expensive in regards for what you get for the money spent.

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Nell February 6, 2017 at 11:51 pm

I’ve seen a *lot* of gardens with lined pools or ponds where an effort has been made to create a natural-looking transition at the edges, and I’ve never seen any that come close to the success of von Donkelaar’s work. That’s awe-inspiring.

It could be that with well-chosen plants, the initial expense and meticulous work of creating such detailed and well-scaled communities actually saves maintenance labor in the long run, as there are fewer niches for weeds, allowing the plants’ adjustments to each other to play a bigger role than the editing gardener. [Who is thus freed up to gaze and learn and get in touch with the deep vibrations.]

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Nell February 7, 2017 at 12:44 am

Among these excellent photos, the shot of the screen of bollards with spindle trees peeking out is my favorite. It evokes an image from the Mien Ruys garden that must be iconic for Dutch garden designers: clipped rectangular evergreen columns that back a reflecting pool.

The bollards are more appealing for several reasons — slightly less massive, made of a lighter and familiar/weathered material, able to be right up against the spindles without affecting their growth, and zero maintenance. They set off the red foliage brilliantly but naturally– like the trunks of larger trees.

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James Golden February 8, 2017 at 11:24 am

I have no idea about maintenance. In theory, what you say is true, but with plants, only time will tell. I see your comparison with the evergreen columns in Mien Ruys garden (I have photos of that feature because we also visited her gardens on this tour). I think this is almost a convention in some Dutch gardens now. It’s permeated the culture.

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Mierlo, Van Noël February 14, 2017 at 6:28 am

Hi Nell, glad you like the garden and its planting.
Maintenance in this garden is done on a very regular basis, so the garden is always in top condition.
This being said: the planting is done in a very naturalistic way so plants can settle and find their own place. This means you do have to pick weeds now and then, but you can let plants find their own ‘sweet spot’. Maintenance can be low (certainly after a few years) and the garden will still be in very good shape for years.
Mien Ruys on the other hand used plant schemes that were very beautiful to look at (she painted with flowers), but they also implied a lot of maintenance. Because after a few years you had to bring the flowerbeds back to the initial plan due to succesion. This means a lot of work.

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Denise Maher February 7, 2017 at 10:48 am

The video of the Japanese water garden really underscores what a complex undertaking it was to accomplish such subtlety and understatement. So much to admire, like the Cor-Ten stepping stones, the simple bollards as implied boundary, and I love that the teahouse is not a strict homage but a modernist interpretation. Stone, metal, fire, water, prospect, shelter, gorgeous planting– nothing was left out! Thanks for the in-depth tour, James.

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James Golden February 8, 2017 at 11:30 am

Thanks, Denise. I should have stated in the post that the bridge plates are raw steel, not corten steel. They will age with a more irregular finish. I would never contemplate starting a garden in this way (something about all the construction, and the destruction preceding it, disturbs my desire for quietude), but it’s rather miraculous that it resulted in a garden that looks “old” so quickly.

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Nell February 7, 2017 at 1:53 pm

Another standout image is the one looking back across the pond from the “back yard”. There’s wonderful planting from close up all the way back to beyond the teahouse, but what strikes me now is how autumnal the scene appears. Unless the visit was fairly late in August, fall must arrive a lot sooner in the Netherlands than I’d realized. Or has van Mierlo selected some especially early-turning tree and shrub cultivars?

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Nell February 7, 2017 at 2:08 pm

<>: “Never mind.”
Just saw the note that photo 28 (looking back across the pond) was supplied by van Mierlo, so not from your visit.

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James Golden February 8, 2017 at 11:33 am

Nell, you’re sharp. Noël provided a couple of photos from October, two months after our visit. Though I have to say there were autumn colors even in August. The Spindle tree, for example, was red red. The largest tree in the garden is a Nyssa–really colorful.

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Ross February 7, 2017 at 8:00 pm

Hate to be part of that great wave of negativity that this here intranet can induce, but I’m afraid that all I see in these grand meaningless architectural gestures and commentary is indulgence and pretension. Those thick wasteful Corten sheets are best used to prevent heavy machinery from getting bogged and given the apparent height in relation to each other do not so much represent a step, as a trip. The bollards are a cliche, the stream as artificial as a faux stream can be, the garden entrance annoying (random curve) and the whole hard edge, crisp smooth lines catch the eye yet you wish it hadn’t. This garden smacks more of the late nineties “SuperDutch” wave of architectural conceit than a garden.

Sorry James, but someone has to be the snark…..
🙂

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James Golden February 8, 2017 at 11:38 am

Ross, yes indeed, you do the snark well. I’m happy you speak what you think. I even hope your comments spark a response, though blog comments are so cumbersome, probably not. At least the vigor of your response tells me you’re well and kicking, even with a growing family!

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Ross Hamilton February 8, 2017 at 1:50 pm

Perhaps you have two friends called Ross both with growing families! Thanks again, James, for showing us all gardens that (certainly I) will never see, and with your comments, too, interesting as always.

I myself rather liked the Corten sheets as stepping stones (perhaps because I love Corten steel, and I think it works nicely within the Japanese interest in rough or patinated surfaces) as well as the lines of the house. Icy in the winter, though!

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James Golden February 8, 2017 at 8:48 pm

Ross Hamilton, I think you are the only Ross I know. Sorry for the mistake. Will the other Ross please identify himself? (I hope I didn’t just put my foot in my mouth again.)

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Ross February 10, 2017 at 12:00 am

Sorry James. I’m just a random gardener from the other side of the planet whose kids have flown the nest thank god, but I adore Oudolf and hates, repeat, hates 99% of contemporary architecture/gardens. Early Onset Grumpiness (EOG) maybe, but I’ve got opinions and sometimes, sadly, I let others know it. Love your work generally and by crikey your garden and pics look divine.

Cheers Ross McLeod

Janna Schreier February 20, 2017 at 2:29 pm

I’m a little late to the party, sorry, but I thought I’d add my bit in here, nevertheless. Noël van Mierlo is clearly a very talented man and the close ups show the depth of his understanding of, and skill at replicating, nature. The ‘miniature bit of nature between stones and a steel bridge plate’ is incredible and both the sloped pond edge and black figure positioning are extremely cleverly done. However, take a step back and view the whole and I do see a little of what Ross (number 1) describes. It neither passes for ‘an amazing co-incidence of beautiful nature’ (i.e. has always been there), nor acts as a deliberate contrast to nature (as rainforest-type courtyards in London can pull off, for example). Perhaps it has more of The Netherlands and or the US/Canada than I can relate to in it (I can see a little of the latter), but I feel more than anything the jarring Ross describes is down to the garden being so new. It is clearly a garden that is designed to age gracefully, gain a patina and allow the plants to merge together and soften edges and with some additional years I can see it presenting quite differently. It’s certainly a garden that made me think, too, and one that I would love to see for myself.

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David Feix February 9, 2017 at 1:09 am

I well imagined this garden was built with an incredible budget, and interesting to hear Ross complain of the materials used as unappealing and inappropriate. I couldn’t disagree more, those floating steel pads and gorgeous floating cantilevered garden structure are the sort of architectural foil to intense plantings that make it so appealing to me. Not really knowing much first hand about Dutch garden traditional details, the wood posts in that syncopated rhythm add a sense of interesting movement, more apparent in intent via the aerial plan view of the video. The garden details may reference traditional Dutch garden elements without the viewer needing to know their symbology or tradition, they are still like musical notes that make the melody.

I was happy to see the video, as it visually answered my question on the metal pad supports, as well as surprising me with the depth of the pond (which left me wondering why so deep?). I also prefer blank slates when designing a garden, but was also amazed at the amount of equipment used. It reminded me of the only similar job I’ve ever seen get built first hand, a palace landscape recreating the Alhambra in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

I liked the garden particularly for the marriage of bold architecture, unexpected materials not just used in trite current fashion, and the plantings which truly “nested” the design. The transition to the house and the front garden didn’t resonate for me, they didn’t have the same level of bold design, seemed a bit suburban even.

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James Golden February 9, 2017 at 6:56 pm

Thanks, David. The only thing I really know about Dutch gardens is that, because space is limited in a country where land is wrested from the sea, they tend to be small and compact, allowing for many uses in a small space. I think we see that even in these gardens, which I believe are far larger than usual Dutch residential gardens. As to use of unexpected materials, it’s notable that raw steel, not corten, is used for the bridge, and van Mierlo told me he used “soft” tiles (I believe that was his expression) on the roof of the tea house, so that they are already beginning to turn green with moss. He also said these tiles will last for many years. The garden structures are designed to still be in place in 100 or 200 years.

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Mierlo, Van Noël February 27, 2017 at 5:20 am

Hi David,
You wonder why the pond is as deep as it is. A pond doesn’t have to be very deep, but too shallow will get you in trouble. The more water-mass you have, the more stable the temperature and water-biotope, and the less chance on alge.
The transition to the house: we re-used a lot of materials that were there already. For example the tiles and other paving. The white main house was a given too..

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Diana Studer February 18, 2017 at 10:37 am

The Japanese half was … lingering … beautiful.

The transition to suburban house and lawn jarring. Perhaps less so in life?

If I had the huge budget I would be deeply satisfied with that pond margin – the most difficult bit to get right. And I have never seen one THAT right!

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Eric S February 20, 2017 at 4:47 pm

FANTASTIC! …and by that I mean to exclaim that this tea house presents for me an ultimate fantasy of an idyllic haven in which to contemplate a water’s edge paradise. Indeed it is an elaborate contrivance, but I firmly believe garden-making which aims to transport us spiritually and succeeds in doing so is a noble effort. Lounging comfortably beside a fire, under protective cover with no visible means of support, watching reflections of sky, stone and foliage….pure magic. Imagine being there in a gentle rain, or with snow falling. Whether the bubble of that fantasy is burst by the proximity of the more conventional residence or the hazards of the magic carpets of rusting steel (tetanus, anyone?) is a personal response. I, for one, am grateful to James for taking us on the ride.

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